Radical Solutions to Make Calgary a World Class City
We have known for some time now that development in the City of Calgary is not proceeding in a sustainable manner. The COVID19 pandemic has only made this more apparent. Every aspect of city life is affected. Food insecurity, lack of affordable housing, limited public transportation and suburban sprawl are all creating problems along with a recession brought on by shifts in the oil and gas industry and covid lockdowns. Our city’s core is plagued by a vacancy rate above 25%. These problems cannot be solved using status quo thinking. We need to use our collection imagination to envision a more inclusive and environmentally friendly city. We must be brave and implement radical new solutions for positive change and development.
I made a presentation to city council at the budget meeting in 2019. Everything I spoke about is still relevant today. In fact, I’m sad to report that the city has made zero progress on any of the action items I discussed since I made this presentation. I had every intention to help Calgary become the best city possible. Over the past year my life path changed direction considerably and I am now settling in back at home in Nelson, BC. These are my departing words and I hope that I inspire Calgarians to keep fighting for a better city with these ideas. Please read my original proposal below. I have updated the text with additional ideas and sketches at the end.
November 26, 2019
Creating a Guiding Vision for Calgary’s Future
(City of Calgary 2018 - 2022 Budget Session)
by Solita Work
Instead of focusing on the current problems our city is facing, I thought it might be more useful to create a vision for our city to strive for. We could then use this vision to guide the decisions we make now to reach the goals we want for the future. Sure, our ideas about how to achieve that differ but we need to set differences aside and find some common ground to work with. Climate change is our biggest challenge and every decision we make will have to support a transition to using way less energy and building a sustainable way of living. We need to make some compromises. So, I think it might be easier if we set a common goal, a vision for our future. Let me describe the city I want to live in. Maybe we’ll discover that we all want the same thing and it will be easier to start making some plans:
As I walk down the street I see all sorts of interesting and colourful buildings. Some are staggered four story walk-ups with green balconies and roofs. Some are quaint older homes carefully restored and retrofitted for energy savings. Some are duplexes, triplexes and even lane way housing to accommodate all, couples, families with children, singles, the elderly and all income levels tightly knit into streets full of green space. I know most of the neighbours. It feels safe here. Tall trees and urban farming plots are everywhere lining the boulevards and alleyways. Sometimes it is hard to tell the difference between a street or an alley. Many garages have been converted to homes. Food security is no longer an issue because we have converted so much empty lawn space into edible gardens and forests. Now close to 60% of the produce we eat is grown right here in our city. Community centre commercial kitchens buzz with activity preserving food. These centers also feature tool lending libraries and repair cafes. Families have saved so much over the years because of the lending libraries. Community Halls are much more of a community hub than they ever were in the past. Many also have full time city employees administering the various programs.
I venture farther down the street and the landscape gets busier as I get closer to one of the many Main Streets that every neighbourhood has. At street level it is human scaled and walkable even with a few taller apartment buildings standing in the mix. There are still a few vehicles making their way slowly down the street past groups of pedestrians and cyclists. But, personal vehicle ownership has fallen out of favour since the city gave active transport the priority and improved public transit considerably. Every community has a car share program, but for the most part, other forms of transport are more efficient. There are still a few remaining vehicle arteries through the city maintained for longer trips, hauling cargo or emergencies but Main Streets are for people. There isn't a need to travel as much and as far because every Main Street has all the amenities you need - groceries, hardware, gift shops, art galleries, music venues, coffee bars, shoes, restaurants, clothing, bakeries, schools, sporting goods even clean, public washrooms on every block and in parks too. The architecture is diverse, interesting and inviting. The air is clean and the streets are filled with only the sounds people talking and children playing. There is no need for traffic control lights anymore, except on those few remaining arteries. The patios lining the street are busy almost year round now. Active transport forces one to dress for the weather so why not also enjoy a hot beverage outside with your neighbour and watch children make snowmen in the park close by.
The parks have improved greatly since the city added more to the budget. More trees have been planted, local indigenous species of plants and animals have been allowed to thrive and now walking though these parks is almost like walking through forests. In fact, because much of it has been restored to natural habitat it actually costs less to maintain, for example pesticides and irrigation are no longer needed. The parks also maintain free seasonal activities that all citizens may participate in. There are outdoor skating rinks and ski trails you can get to by foot in the winter. In the summer, there are outdoor pools, beaches along the river and other amenities including urban camping. Public washrooms are staffed and maintained year round. It became impossible to build and maintain so many additional recreation centres so the city started investing more in its parks and working within the seasons. Also, no other city will ever match the amount of cycling pathways we enjoy. Not only did we initially build a great recreational network but we now have an urban system that people around the world envy. School buses are no longer necessary. Most children walk or bike to school and a few take public transit.
People want to travel and move here. The city opted to collect taxes based on square footage instead of land value so now it is possible to afford a nice home or start a little business in any neighbourhood of your choice. This new tax structure helped shrink the income gab between the rich and poor and created incentives to live smaller and aided in the transition to a low carbon economy. It was a wise decision to use the carbon tax to help energy companies transition into renewables. The funds enabled them to retrain our young, educated citizens for work in this new field quickly. Our downtown core is bustling again but with a different kind of activity. The streets have more green space and less vehicles. Many more people live here too. Density increased. Office towers are powered and heated by an array of renewable technology that we now export to the other countries. We make a lot more of our own stuff too. Some manufacturing has returned to the province. We have finally reached a target of zero waste. We have lots of jobs in clean energy technology, recycled manufacturing, food production and more independent business owners than ever before.
Sure, it was bumpy ride getting to this point. Citizens didn't want to give up their private vehicles at first. Public transit just wasn't efficient enough. They didn't want to pay more taxes on their bigger houses either. Heat and water was expensive. Inequality was making the transition tough on low income earners too. There wasn't enough affordable food or housing to go around and relying on charity just wasn't enough. But our politicians had a vision. They made tough decisions and explained to its citizens that if we used our budgets for building roads and endless suburbs our taxes would continue to rise. We would never meet our city-stated climate goals, in fact we wouldn't even be able to deliver basic services. Instead, these wise politicians invested in other more efficient items like walkable density, food security, public transit, cycling routes throughout the entire city, and Main Streets to the benefit of every Calgarian.
We built the thriving, diverse, clean and interesting city we all craved. No one would go without anymore, we just had to do with a little less during the transition. These politicians found innovative solutions to immediate problems and helped foster pride in every citizen by working together in unity. When everyone realized that we were all striving for the same goal, a sustainable, healthy city, it became easier to accept the big changes and modify our own behaviors to help reach those goals. Our politicians chose to act decisively in the face of Calgary’s biggest threats and left us a legacy that we are all proud of.
This is my vision for the future of our city. There are many more things to add but I only have five minutes. I think I have covered some of the most important issues.
I would be surprised if this wasn't the sort of city you would like to live in. In keeping with this vision, I am asking you to consider all the possibilities, recommit to achieving Calgary’s stated climate goals, spend money to get us there, commit to long term funding to continue this crucial work, and show the people of Calgary it's the path we should take. Make the tough decisions to get us to a safe future, take decisive action. Think about the long term future of generations to come. Do something big cities haven't done before. It’s your job to make the difficult decisions for us and make sure you accomplish what you agreed to do. We elected you to do this work. You’ll never be able to please everyone but you can do the right thing and the majority will support you. Start working together. Leave a legacy behind that we will all be proud of. Give Calgarians a reason to vote for you again.
In closing I would like to offer some possible immediate solutions to consider:
• Stop building more roads now. You’ll never get the ridership or participation in active transport you want unless you invest in it and give it priority.
• Plant more trees and quickly. It shouldn't take two years to replace one dead tree on my street.
• Our inner city is turning into a ghost town. Retail rent is way too high right now. Create a tax on empty retail space right now but in turn offer tax incentives to building owners that rent to small business. Level the playing field. If those owners can sit on those empty retail spaces for years, they can afford to fill them with small businesses at a discount. Give people a reason to come back downtown, to live downtown.
• Stop approving new suburbs immediately and work on creating more housing in the inner city. There are so many parking lots just begging for development.
• Mandate more affordable family housing (not low income) to be built now. Fill up those empty spaces. Move people from the suburbs. Create density.
In the long term convert out tax system to be based on square footage instead of land value. It may be a provincial issue but if city council can act in unison the province will listen.
• Change building codes to mandate energy efficiency and find money to retrofit old buildings. Again, this may be a provincial issue but let me repeat myself, if city council can act in unison the province will listen.
• Complete all sidewalks now. It’s silly that the city sends out maintenance crews to remove snow from bus stop pads that are basically islands in the middle of nowhere. People do not just magically appear at these bus stops. Do the easiest, cheapest things that you can do right now to make peoples lives better.
• Convert some of the ridiculous amount of empty office space to housing. Even if it’s a band aid retrofit, it seems absurd to accept that people are sleeping on the street when they could be indoors.
• Ban single-use throw-away packaging right now. Don’t ask for public input when you already know it’s the right thing to do.
• Find a way to offer education subsidies to workers to retrain for work in renewables right now. Maybe the subsidies could be offered in exchange for an agreement to stay in Calgary, something similar to programs offered to doctors. And yet again, this may be a provincial issue but, let me repeat myself again, if city council can act in unison the province will listen.
• While you’re at it, explore the possibility for a free day care system to support those workers retraining and entering new careers. Maybe you can even get federal funding for this.
I don’t want to hear “this has never been done before” or “we can’t”, try it anyway. Push the boundaries. Humanity is depending on this type of thinking and cities have the most opportunity to this.
This fall, you will have the chance to select new leaders in the civic election. This will be a pivotal time to help shape the future direction that Calgary will proceed in. Vote for candidates that are offering clear and timely policies and solutions. To kick start this process, I have come up with a number of additional ideas to get your imaginations running:
• Transform under-utilized golf courses into urban food farms.
• Develop Community Centres into neighbourhood hubs converting parking lots into community gardens, facilitate active community kitchens, and convenient tool lending libraries. Pay elected board members to implement it.
• Replace all city maintained lawn with local, indigenous edible plants. Not only does it increase access to food but less water and other resources are required to maintain them.
• Allow bicycles on C-trains at all times making active and public transport more accessible as well as expanding the reach.
• Make sidewalks and separated bike lanes mandatory on all roads and streets being built or upgraded.
• Expand the COVID lanes to include an east/west lane across town along Memorial Drive from Edworthy to Elliston Park. Create north/south lane along Centre Street and MacLeod Trail from Beddington to Shawnessy
• Create an enforceable anti-idling campaign. If citizens cannot smoke within 5 metres of a doorway drivers should definitely not be able idle vehicles either. (Fun fact: exhaust fumes are so toxic, you will die considerably faster stuck in a garage with an idling vehicle versus a cigarette smoker.)
• Add secure bicycle parking everywhere.
• Offer micro-loans to Calgarians to buy electric bicycles and drive less. (Fun fact: Nelson, BC has a great program implemented through their public utilities provider: http://www.nelson.ca/824/E-Bike-Program. Perhaps a similar program could be offered through Enmax.
• Increase investment in coop housing especially near transit hubs and throughout the inner city
• Encourage more development of dense and affordable (not low income) family sized housing within the inner city. Build mixed housing that encourages community development that anyone would be happy to live in.
• Transition from a property tax system based on land value to a system based on square footage occupied or public services used. The more space occupied or public services used the higher the taxes.
• Install tent camping sites (pedestrian and bicycle accessible only) in the major urban parks such as Nose Hill, Beaver Dam Flats and Fish Creek
• Develop and maintain public beaches along the Elbow and Bow Rivers complete with public washrooms.
• Build a cross country ski trail downtown linking all the inner city parks and beyond in the winter months. It could even be a seasonal commuter option. It would make a very unique attraction in our winter city!)
• Business Development
• Create affordable micro retail in the alleys downtown and other popular neighbourhoods such as Inglewood.
• Implement a substantial ‘empty’ space tax on commercial space while simultaneously offering tax breaks on occupied space. The smaller and more local the business occupying the space the greater the tax break.
Arts and Culture
• Provide electricity hookups in all parks and allow for food trucks to operate on a daily basis eliminating the need for noise and air polluting generators.
Close popular streets to car traffic and create pedestrian friendly squares. (For example: closing the 1200 and 1300 blocks of 1 Street SW could make a beautiful entertainment destination.
• Add green space and enhance public useability whenever possible.
• Demand the city create, finance and maintain public festivals that are free. (For example: Beakerhead would make a perfect public investment. It combines art and science making for engaging and educational programming for all ages. I think Beakerhead has suffered in recent years being forced to spend more time on resources on fundraising. Imagine how fantastic this festival could be if it were fully funded by the city?!)
• Encourage the development of culturally diverse, accessible districts downtown. (Other major cities not only have a China town but, also a little India and a little Italy and the list goes on. We could even develop a little Blackfoot. How awesome would it be to create a year round shopping and entertainment district that celebrated local Indigenous culture?)
• Host more local outdoor day and night markets.
• Make it easier to add outdoor dining patios and shopping spaces to any small business.
• Build, maintain and staff public washrooms in all parks and busy districts.
• Replace school yard and park fencing with edible berry shrubs like raspberries or saskatoon berries that are much prettier to look at and easy to maintain. Far more beneficial than your standard chain link fence. Chain link is so ugly!
• Close key popular streets to traffic and transform into public squares. (Example: the 1200 and 1300 blocks of 1 Street SW would make a great public square with so many restaurants and cafes opening onto it.)
• Activate areas with greenery in empty spaces especially near public buildings. (Example: the large cement pad in front of the Inglewood YWCA seems like a huge missed opportunity).
Perhaps, you will ask candidates to add some of these ideas to their platforms. Perhaps, some of these ideas will become reality finally making Calgary the world class city you desperately wish to see. I’d love to hear your ideas too. Please email your ideas to firstname.lastname@example.org. Even though I no longer live in the city, I still have very strong ties there. Problems that Calgarians solve are problems that people are trying to solve everywhere. Solutions established in Calgary can be applied to other communities. Although I'm happy to be home in BC now, there are lots of things I will miss in Calgary. I will be back to visit often. I look forward to watching your progress.
Next blog will be all about rural life in the West Kootenays and building Bear Spring Eco Retreat : )
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